It is natural for attitudes to change in international politics, even those that sometimes seem to be set in stone. Even Putin once thought that NATO was a “defense alliance” and that every country had the right to choose the way it would build its security. He said that in 2002, in connection with the invitation of NATO to the Baltic States to join the Alliance. They joined two years later and Putin had nothing against it, and today he believes that he is at war with them, even though he attacked Ukraine, someone completely different.
The fact that today he thinks that NATO is not a “defense alliance”, but that it has been plotting against Russia since the end of the Cold War, that NATO is surrounding Russia with strong forces all that time, and thus threatens Russian security, is just a change in his policy, not so rare occurrence. The only question is – when was he mistaken? In 2002 when he acted as someone who could be a partner of NATO, or now when he sees NATO as a mortal enemy? Or maybe – when was he not telling the truth, now or 20 years ago?
Whatever it is, major changes in policy must be accepted as an integral part of it, as a fact to which you need to adapt, if you cannot change it. This is especially true of the twists and turns in big politics.
A big change in Russia’s policy towards Serbia is underway. We can follow it live since the Russian aggression against Ukraine. It is such that it pushes relations between the two countries downhill, where it’s cold. In a short time, in the last three months, during Russia’s attempt to occupy Ukraine, a series of negative messages came to Serbia from Russia, because of which no one should pretend that these relations are fabulous, fraternal, as they have been described by both sides for years. They are far from it.
Maria Zakharova is the leader in that series, and what she says is not her mischief, but a first-class expression of Moscow’s official policy towards Serbia. She was not stubborn and careless even when she unacceptably made fun of Aleksandar Vučić and his sitting in the Oval Office in Washington two and a half years ago, comparing him to Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. She was serious then and she is serious now.
Ana Brnabić is now the source of Zakharova’s (Kremlin’s) criticism, and she said that Brnabić’s very precise and accurate parallel between the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the NATO bombing of Serbia was “inappropriate”. And she went a step further, so she recommended to Russian journalists that they should ask “the party that states that” (Ana Brnabić and Serbia) a series of questions, to explain what they thought. In the war conditions, in which Zakharova and the journalists who follow her work, that is not a recommendation but an order.
Before the Serbian Prime Minister, Zakharova was in a passive-aggressive manner engaged in Russian-Serbian friendship, so she threatened Serbia that while considering whether to impose sanctions or not, it should keep in mind that Russia “supports its friends even in the most difficult times”. In the meantime, her colleague from the presidential office, Dmitry Peskov, easily denounced President Vučić as a manipulator. A spokesman for the Kremlin coldly denied Vučić’s announcement that he is to talk with Putin, saying that there were no such plans, and that there would be talks when needed. It is impossible that the Serbian president casually announced such an important conversation, as is the conversation with the Russian president. However, it is realistic that the Kremlin needs to send cold messages, even untruths, to Belgrade, and thus demonstrate that relations have cooled down, that they are – bad.
Even when there is no direct communication with Serbia, the cooling down is obvious. When the Russian ambassador in Sarajevo, Igor Kalabukhov, is opening the eyes of the citizens of BiH, including those in the Republika Srpska, that they should not go to the EU, because it is “institutionally and morally degraded” and that it pursues a “neo-imperial policy” towards them, then that is the message to Serbia that it should give up Europe. To give up its strategic goal in which Serbia sees itself, people across the Balkans and the countries in which they live, as part of the EU in the near future.
Moscow is giving Serbia the side-eye, but at least it is sincere. When it comes “from the top”, from the headquarters, then there is no point for it to be “embellished” by all those in the lower level of the hierarchy, such as the ambassador in Belgrade or the deputy head of the Russian Duma Alexander Babakov, who continue to fill the Serbian media with messages of brotherhood, love, and eternal friendship. There is no such thing. The real question is whether it ever existed.
As in the case of Putin and NATO in 2002 and twenty years later, the question is – which Russian policy towards Serbia was real? The one today, in which opportunities are not missed to shake a finger at the state leadership of Serbia, and even to make fun of it, or the long-standing one in which Russia and Serbia walked through a meadow of cooperation as best and eternal friends?
It is clear that it is the first one. Serbia should not question whether it has made a mistake or exaggerated when it comes to Russia. Serbia rightly condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine at the UN, just as it voted to exclude Russia from the UN Human Rights Council or when the message of Prime Minister Brnabić reminded that the bombing of Serbia in 1999 and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine were one and the same from the standpoint of international law. In all these cases, Serbia was on the side of principles, first, and then on the side of its interests. It is Russia that, by invading the neighboring country, has trampled over principles and damaged relations with everyone, including Serbia. Russia decided to “cool down” relations with Belgrade, because it is irrelevant to it in relation to goal number one, which is the occupation and destruction of Ukraine. If Russia expected that Serbia would follow in that campaign, then it once again confirmed that it is a victim of its own deception, in this case that Serbia will stand with Russia no matter what it does, because Russia is a “brotherly” state. That brotherhood simply does not exist, it did not exist, and it is good that Moscow is clearly saying that now.